I know this has been a long, trying two weeks for those of you (shout out to Shari!) craving waiting to hear about my northern Ghanaian tales, and I hope my account isn’t too melodramatic hyperbolic. I’ll attempt to show some restraint, but to paint an accurate picture of this past week I think it’ll be necessary to unleash higher dosages of sass than normal. Prepare yourself!
Monday, November 26
My two friends and I departed Monday morning at around 11 AM, eager to commence our trek to our first destination, Tamale, the capital of Ghana’s Northern Region. I left armed with about 4 days worth of clothes, understanding that being disgustingly smelly and filthy would be inevitable and deciding to embrace it. There are a few different ways of reaching northern Ghana, ranging from the easy (45 minute plane ride) to the laborious (12-17 hour bus ride). We elected the borderline-psychotic method of taking a ferry along the Volta River that could take anywhere from 36-50 hours in supposedly fairly unpleasant conditions. All we wanted was to be the cool Oburonis, having the most unique experience of our other CIEE peers who journeyed up north.
I should have foreseen that any attempts of me being remotely cool would only end in disappointment and slight amounts of shame. According to our guidebook, one ferry left Akosombo at 4:00 every Monday. We were really worried that we’d arrive late, but had little reason to fear that Ghanaian transportation would not continue its trend of being completely unreliable with its timetables. When we reached the port at about 3:00, we were really proud of ourselves for being early.
And then we were told that the ferry left at 1:30. Thanks, Bradt Guidebook. After spending about 7 minutes feeling sorry for ourselves, we finally got ourselves together and found a silver lining: at least we’d arrive at Tamale earlier! We didn’t have a Plan B (whoops), but were adamant about not going on the Oburoni Walk of Shame back to Accra to start from scratch. We resolved to get to Kumasi by whatever non-Accra route necessary, which resulted in a tro-tro ride to Koforidua (capital of the Eastern Region) that featured the three of us and some furry friends:
We finally arrived in Kumasi at around 11:30 PM. We hadn’t really eaten anything all day and downed some indomie, too hungry to give much notice to the unfortunate fishy taste. After some debating, we elected to take an overnight bus to Tamale, leaving at 1:30 in the morning.
Tuesday, November 27
Sleeping on that slightly-more-luxurious tro-tro was a challenge I never really overcame. The roads were bumpy, the space was cramped, and there was this crazed music video (with laughable production value) blasting on the bus’s TV on loop. Also, my seatmate appeared to be in a perpetual state of misery and peril, evidenced by him keeping his head out the window on numerous occasions to discharge some probable fufu. Nasty.
We finally made it to Tamale by 8:30 AM, about 21 hours after leaving Accra. We stumbled out into the northern Ghanaian heat dazed and starving, and after a brief food search we settled on $0.50 rice and beans served on a newspaper. We had to share one spoon, but we weren’t about to complain at that point (There would be plenty of time for that later). This search allowed us to get a pretty good idea of what Tamale has to offer: a ton of mosques, lots of motorcycles, and…that’s about it.
Next on the agenda was locating our guest house, which nobody in this city appeared to have any knowledge of. A taxi driver brought us to a random hotel, then demanded that we pay him more to bring us to the right one. That’s some pretty impressive logic, buddy. We finally made it there, and after some brief excitement over getting to sit on a bed, went on a search for this leather tannery; the guidebook says to just “follow your nose” through a suburb, which was a pretty accurate piece of advice. The tannery is run by Chief Slim, this eccentric dude who forced some sandals upon us; I purchased a pair supposedly made with goat skin.
Let’s play “Guess How Long Matthew’s New Sandals Last.” The answer will be given later on. We were allowed to watch the “entire” leather-making process for a fee that wasn’t really worth it, but we had to do something to justify our stop in this city and there weren’t many other options.
We headed back to the guest house to rest until dinner, which we had at this beautiful Indian restaurant. Naan was consumed. Definitely the highlight of Tamale. It was also around this time that we ran into the damn Projects Abroad crew that I talked about last time. All white people’s roads in northern Ghana end at Mole National Park, so we knew we’d be seeing them again soon.
Wednesday, November 28
We woke up bright and early, determined to get to the Metro Mass station at a time when it would be impossible to miss the bus to Mole (Mole-ay). According to our never sometimes reliable guidebook, the bus left every day at 2:00. We got there before 10:30, went up to the ticket counter and were told we could purchase tickets at around 1:30. We parked ourselves in the shade and patiently waited, allowing me plenty of time to read the overwhelmingly miserable (and excessively long) Under the Dome
As 1:30 approached I stocked up on a loaf of bread to nibble on in case the ride took a while. The Projects Abroad crew arrived at a much more reasonable time than we did, and they came over to us for what I assumed would be to exchange some pleasantries.
Nope! They came over to tell us that there would be no buses to Mole that day! We spared 5 minutes to express our massive amounts of exasperation before heading over to the tro-tro station to see if it would be possible to get to Mole from there. We were ushered to a tro-tro that was heading to Wa (capital of the Upper West Region), told that we would be dropped off at Larabanga, 6km away from Mole. We got inside, paid our 15 cedi, and were informed that we’d be leaving at 5:30. It was about 2:45, but at this point we were experts at sitting around waiting to leave for places; we were just happy that our day wouldn’t be a complete waste.
At 5:00, the tro-tro mate paid us a visit, taking this opportunity to inform us silly Oburonis that we wouldn’t be leaving at 5:30 that evening, but at 5:30 in the morning! WHAT?! He also took this opportunity to remind us that tickets are non-refundable, but was gracious enough to invite us to spend the night in the tro-tro. After a group meeting in which we spent a majority of the time cursing Tamale’s existence, we decided that we didn’t want to spend more money on a guest house and to accept the tro-tro douche’s offer. We drowned our sorrows in some beer, then went back to the Indian restaurant—a place we agreed to be Tamale’s only worthy attraction.
Thursday, November 29
We awoke from our night at Le Château Tro-Tro (name credit: Erika Baumann) before 5:00AM. Accommodations included: our own rows to sleep on, tight security (besides the whole window access possibility), free bug spray usage, and free entertainment, featuring music blasting at all hours of the night and a station recording bellowing, “WA! WA! WA! WHERE ARE YOU GOING?!? WA! WA!”
We spent a few minutes lamenting that 2/3 nights of traveling so far were spent in a tro-tro, but we pushed that negativity aside pretty quickly because we were finally on our way to Mole! There was no argument that seeing elephants would eradicate any of the previous 3 days’ misfortunes.
The trip to Larabanga was about 3 hours, and we could either motorbike the 6km to Mole Motel or walk. We elected for the latter since the path was well marked and we missed the morning safari anyway. Off we went on our journey, leading a horde of children, not much unlike Moses leading the Israelites through the desert. Except I refused to give the children any of my manna bread. Or pens. They were on their way to school, so I’m sure they had access to writing utensils. If they don’t, well…sorry not sorry.
Mole National Park is without a doubt the grandest of all of Ghana’s Oburoni Traps. Elephant love isn’t a solely white-tourist phenomenon, right? Maybe. The amount of white people there was actually a bit overwhelming, and of course the Projects Abroad crew was already there, having shelled out $100 to take a taxi the previous day. The incredulous looks we received when we revealed our…unique method of arriving were probably well deserved, but…at least we spent $90 less than they did! Silver linings, remember?
We had a few hours to relax and sit on the observation deck until our 3:30 safari walk, and the multiple warthogs that roamed the grounds gave us some encouragement and hope that we’d be seeing some elephants either that night or the next morning.
We were talked into taking the jeep instead of walking since it wouldn’t be expensive when splitting the price 8 ways. The three of us rode on the roof for the first hour, bringing back more memories of my summer 2011 Botswana days. The wooden planks and bumpy roads didn’t make my already-sore butt too happy, but within the first 2 minutes of the trip we saw a baby baboon and all other thoughts ceased in favor of giddiness and joy. We didn’t see any elephants that afternoon, but we were still hopeful and convinced that our bad luck couldn’t possibly continue indefinitely.
I am clumsy. My ability to keep my body upright during any potential perilous situation is meager. Whenever I have to perform an activity that involves climbing or balancing, there is about an 86% chance that I will end up on the ground. Maybe my life is just one grand, pitiful self-fulfilling prophecy. Whatever the reason, by the time we left Mole that morning my shame levels were reaching its familiar peak.
We began our morning safari walk at 7:30 with high hopes and determination. The small group of us set off on our generally leisurely stroll through the Park, keeping our eyes open for some tusks and/or elephant poop. We didn’t see much early on besides the occasional antelope, but we weren’t worried. About an hour into the walk, we were told we’d be crossing some water.
My mind instantly flashed back to June 7, 2011, the last time I attempted to successfully make it across a stream. That day we had to hop across some rocks to get to the other side, and I missed. And had to be rescued. Once I saw the log we had to maneuver across, I knew I was a goner. My friend and I made it about halfway across before she tumbled in and I followed right after. She managed to gracefully pick herself up and get across without further incident, but I took another spill. On the bright side, the water wasn’t too deep, it was surprisingly refreshing, and no valuables were damaged. (Hope that sentence doesn’t come across as too disingenuous).
No elephants were encountered, but at least we couldn’t say that this trip had so far been anything but consistent! I wasn’t as devastated as the others over this since I was lucky enough to spend 30 days literally living with wild elephants, something I unfortunately took for granted. We licked our wounds (dumped water on our shoes), got ourselves together and left Mole saddened but hopeful that Wa would be better. And by better I mean filled with hippos.
To get to Wa, you could either catch the 4:00AM Metro Mass bus out of Mole, or…that’s about it, really. We sat around Larabanga hoping for a tro-tro to arrive, but we were about 0-7 in terms of transportation success so we had a feeling things weren’t going to go too well for us. I was also starting to feel a little nauseous, which is just what this trip had been lacking.
Desperation led us to seek alternative modes of transportation, and before I knew it we were chasing down a pickup truck begging the driver to let us sit in the back and take us anywhere towards Wa. Look, mom & dad guys. Hitchhiking is something I will never go out of my way to do. I understand that it can be potentially dangerous, but I also live by the probably naïve philosophy that people, at the end of the day, are generally not assholes. And we didn’t really have any other options; we were not staying in Larabanga for the night. And the allure of saving money was overpowering.
We really couldn’t believe our luck (really. Cause we’d had none up to that point) when we found out that the truck was going directly to Wa. We pushed aside a pair of Ghanaians who were also attempting to hitch a ride (an Oburoni’s gotta do what an Oburoni’s gotta do), and were on our way! The sickness I had been feeling earlier slowly began creeping back, and I was becoming increasingly concerned for the cleanliness of the vehicle and my fellow passengers. I made it until we were about 40 minutes away from Wa before I was forced to have our kind driver pull over for me to go kill some bushes.
I popped a pepto and all was well! We arrived at Wa in the early afternoon and made our way to Nakori, the site of a supposedly 15th century mud-and-stick mosque where we’d be allowed to climb onto the roof. We were met by yet another horde of children who followed us to the mosque.
We walked the more-than-4km back to Wa where we struggled to find our guest house. We went on a food hunt and went to sleep soon after to get an early start on our trip to Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary.
Saturday, December 1
Wechiau Hippo Sanctuary is probably Wa’s main tourist attraction, and like most Ghanaian tourist hubs, the inadequacy in its functionality is alarming. To get there, you need to either hire a motorbike or rent a bicycle and ride to the lodge. Oh. And you need to bring all the food and water you’ll require for the duration of your stay. Ghana, this is Tourism 101. If you want people to spend the day/night at your wonderful hippo sanctuary, make sure there’s some damned food and water waiting for us when we get there. The girls I traveled with were adamant about biking the 18km. All I could think about was that for $5.00 more, we could get there in comfort and in 7X less time. But I wasn’t about to be a party pooper, so after basically commandeering bikes from children in the town and stocking up on not nearly enough water and some bread/oranges, we were on our way!
After about 7 minutes I had a feeling where this bike ride was going to go. The bikes we were using were beyond unequipped to handle the terrain we had to ride through. Not to mention the only biking I’ve done in the past 2 decades has been limited to the occasional 10 minute ride around my block with my mother along flat, paved roads. Now I was being forced to ride a bike that was probably older than me across unpaved dirt roads and sand. For over 10 miles in the early afternoon. On the equator.
The water supply was depleted after about 2 hours, and my bike’s chains kept detaching. I contemplated death more times than I’m happy with towards the end, and I may or may not have cried. Not bawling or anything deranged like that, just frustration because I knew that this ride was going to be beyond my capabilities. My inability to open my mouth has been my downfall on numerous occasions, but I think from now on I may be more inclined to put the brakes on situations I foresee as being regrettable. But we made it, I didn’t fall off the bike (about 12 close calls. Seriously, bikes aren’t ridden on the beach for a reason), and we had over an hour to recover before our river hippo safari.
I broke Africa’s #1 rule upon arrival by drinking un-treated water pumped out of the ground, but it was either drink that potentially worm-infested water or drop dead. Both options seemed appealing at that point.
Although I was rendered completely incapacitated, I mustered the minuscule amount of energy I had left to enjoy the canoe ride along the Black Volta River, which separates Burkina Faso from Ghana. During this ride our guide took out a bowl, scooped out some of the river water and proceeded to pour it down his throat, effectively eliminating any qualms I had about my drinking water situation. Despite my strange, often ridiculous history with hippopotami (Hippo“Matt”amus will never be forgotten), I had never seen one in the wild.
I like to think that the few hippos we came across sensed my despair and recognized me as one of their former biggest fans, and chose to bless us with their presence accordingly. Or maybe they understood that if they didn’t show their faces after that 18km bike ride, the fragile emotional state I was still in would have resulted in unpleasantness for all.
We stared in awe at those majestic creatures for a few minutes before heading back, not before making a likely illegal pit stop across the river to Burkina Faso, where we got out and took some victory pictures.
We spent the remainder of the afternoon recovering and reading, with somebody blasting Celine Dion’s “It’s All Coming Back To Me Now” on repeat until we passed out by 7:00. Ghana really loves this woman, perhaps more than I do.
Sunday, December 2
We left by motorcycle (we agreed that biking was NOT happening again) back to town to catch a tro-tro back to Wa. I said goodbye to my two friends who had more time to travel than I did, and I sat and waited for 4 hours for a tro-tro back to Tamale.
We began to leave the station at 2:40PM and the tro-tro instantly broke down, since no aspect of this trip was allowed to go smoothly. We piled into another one and were on our way!
At around 5:00, our tro-tro succumbed to the crappy roads that make up northern Ghana. A tire popped while we were in the middle of nowhere, forcing all of us to get out while the spare was put on. As soon as we stepped outside we were bombarded by a swarm of gnats, reducing me to a flailing mess as I slapped myself repeatedly, killing countless amounts as all the Ghanaians laughed at me. It was a sad sight, but it fits in perfectly with the rest of the week’s events. We got back on the road, and at 6:00 we stopped in a town where we were all forced to get out and wait while the driver got the tire fixed.
A half hour later we were back on track, just in time for the arrival of a torrential storm. The roads connecting Wa and Tamale are fairly treacherous in sunny daylight, so those 40 minutes of blinding rain at night were terrifying. It was one of the few moments I can remember when I actually felt like my life was at risk, but I still tried to find the humor in the situation. Lord knows I would not have made it through the 20 years of ridiculousness that is my life if I didn’t constantly laugh at myself.
We finally pulled into Tamale at 9:30, and I decided to stay at the guesthouse close to the Indian restaurant we went to earlier in the week. The taxi driver tried charging me 10 cedi to get there when we paid 3 a few days earlier, and I was not in the mental state to put up with that nonsense. Maybe there’s hope for me after all, and I won’t actually let everyone I come across walk all over me. When I trudged into the guest house looking grosser than I’ve ever looked in my life, the receptionist had the chutzpah to tell me that there weren’t any rooms available, that I could stay there only if I agreed to be out before 6AM. I must have looked like I was about to burst into tears (I was), since a few minutes later I was comfortably settled into a room that I could stay in as long as I wanted the next morning.
Monday, December 3
I compensated my body for the physical/emotional trauma of the past few days by sleeping in, laying in bed and reading until 11 when I left to go the Indian restaurant one last time. I randomly ran into 2 CIEE students who I kind of (but not really) knew, but luckily it was right as I was leaving, sparing me any uncomfortable minutes of silence that would have likely followed if they joined my table.
I arrived at the airport a couple hours before my 3:40 flight, giving me a glimpse of more of this region’s inefficiency. The power at the airport kept going out and none of the metal detectors/scanners were working, forcing a full-body pat down and an airport official having to rifle through my putrid clothing. At least he had gloves!
The flight itself was wonderful. Leather seats! A headrest! Leg room! Ah, modern technology and comfortable travel. You were missed. 45 minutes later I was back in Accra. I planned on taking a tro-tro back to campus, but when I asked somebody where the station was he offered to just drive me there himself. I wasn’t about to say no to a free ride, and I found it fitting to end the week with one final outlandish transportation story.
Switching gears, the next 24 hours were spent studying for Wednesday’s Colonial Rule and African Response final exam. It was that Tuesday night as I was studying in the hallway that my right sandal broke. So for those of you who guessed 7 days, congratulations! You can come collect your prize of 3 broken sandals at any time.
My motivation levels were at their typical University of Ghana low, which turned out not to be a problem since the exam was laughable. We had over 2 hours to write 4 pages, answering two essay questions that we’d already been asked in earlier exams. Sometimes I suspect that these professors have no fucks to give when it comes to providing quality education. I miss you, GWU.
That Wednesday evening I had an interview for an internship position with Bread for the City, a non-profit that helps disadvantaged DC residents by providing free food, clothing, medical care, legal aid and social services. The interview was about as cringe-worthy as the one I had 2 weeks ago with the Wilson Center, perhaps more so since I spewed some BS about having no issues talking to people and soliciting them for money. I sent her a link to my blog in a desperate attempt to make her think I possess any semblance of intelligence.
She hasn’t gotten back to me yet, and I’m guessing she won’t be any time soon. Oh well! I consoled myself afterwards by realizing that on the bright side, if nothing works out, I’d at least have a lot of free time on Mondays, Wednesdays and Fridays.
I hadn’t been to Beacon House in almost 2 weeks, and my greeting that Thursday afternoon was beautiful, with so many hugs. The kids are beyond excited for Christmas. One kid saw the Christmas Tree waiting to be set up and said, “Look at Christmas!!” as if it’s a person. They had visited a school that morning and were given books as presents, and one 4 year-old showed me his book about Halloween and said, “Look at my Bible!” I’m really going to miss the verbal gold that comes out of their mouths. What I’ll miss most of all? This guy:
Ghana’s presidential elections are currently taking place, beginning on Friday, December 7. We were told via email to remain on campus for own safety, but I’m not one to take my personal safety into consideration unless there’s climbing involved. I went to Beacon House that afternoon, experiencing no trouble other than the travesty of the Chinese restaurant I go to being closed. I took this opportunity as an excuse for me to buy some overpriced Oreos at the supermarket. Best lunch I’ve had in a while.
It’s no surprise to me that Ghana’s elections have experienced some complications. Apparently many of the machines were faulty, forcing people back to polling stations today (Saturday) to vote again. You’d think that with the 4 year period between elections, people would make sure that these machines are working properly. Guess that’s asking for too much technological reliability. Oh well. Pulling for you, John Mahama!
Oh, and the Wilson Center gave me a formal offer for the internship position next semester. So that’s exciting! My competition must have been non-existent.
If any of you managed to make it through this short story of a post, thank you! Really, the praise I’ve consistently received from some of you guys has been wonderful, and has motivated me to actually put some effort into these entries. I’m still having trouble seeing what’s so special about this drek, but for all the hours I spend on each entry it’s really nice to hear that people appreciate it. We’ve only got 10 days left here, with one final post in the works for next weekend, where I’ll attempt to reflect on this experience and provide some final thoughts, maybe on what’s in store for me in the coming months.
Until then, Happy Hanukkah! I think that’s going on now, but I actually have no idea.
Also, here’s more Amy Poehler being beautiful and smart and perfect.